By Dan Clayton
Gordon Hayward’s leap to stardom this season has been real and, by now, well documented. His first All-Star season, across-the-board stat increases, and quickly growing collection of poster dunks have elevated his place in the NBA consciousness. He’s even getting some momentum as a trendy All-NBA pick.
If the Utah Jazz star really does land one of six all-league forward spots, it would cement his rise to superstar; a tremendous honor for a guy whose game has been tragically overlooked even as he improved each season as a pro. At the same time, it would present his Jazz with both advantages to retain him and a financial conundrum.
When the NBA and the Players Union agreed to new contract rules for Designated Veteran Players (DVP), it may well have been with burgeoning stars like Hayward in mind. The new provisions improve an incumbent team’s advantages to keep a star player beyond his second contract by allowing for a longer, richer deal that unlocks the highest max bracket sooner if a player stays home. What it may also do is present teams with a very difficult decision.
The rule in a nutshell: eligible players who would otherwise qualify for the 30 percent max can receive extensions or new contracts starting at the 35 percent max figure if they hit certain criteria. It’s only available to seven and eight-year veterans who have recently bagged such honors as All-NBA, Defensive Player of the Year or league MVP. The specific triggers for the former two awards are different from the MVP criteria, but suffice it to say, an All-NBA selection for Hayward makes his free agency this summer — he has a player option he’s certain to decline — a lot more lucrative.
The first question that has to be parsed is how likely Hayward is as an All-NBA pick. Hayward’s path is easier if voters have Kevin Durant’s spot to work with, but that’s not a foregone conclusion. Durant is a surefire first-teamer under normal circumstances, and there will certainly be voters who feel that his 59 games at that level still qualify him for a spot — even moreso if he returns prior to the end of the regular season and turns that 59 into, say, 65.
Even with Durant in the mix, it’s still possible. LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard are no-brainers. Let’s assume those three are in; here’s the rest of Hayward’s competition:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo has a bit more buzz, but his averages also trump Hayward’s by a point, three rebounds and two assists. His advanced stats are also better. He’s likely in ahead of Hayward. Two spots left.
- Anthony Davis could get in as a forward or a center, but especially now that he shares the frontcourt with DeMarcus Cousins, the former is more likely. If that’s the case, his individual stats make him a likelier selection than Hayward: he’s a 28-and-12 guy who’s also second in the league in blocks. One more spot.
- Blake Griffin might have missed too much time this year. He is more than 500 minutes shy of Hayward’s season total, and it’s not like his raw performance has lapped the Jazz forward in those minutes: 22-9-5 (rounded) when healthy, as opposed to Hayward’s 22-6-4. If he plays in every remaining contest, he will make it to 62 games played.
- It likely comes down to one of Hayward, Jimmy Butler and Paul George, which is a pretty interesting comparison. Jimmy has been a little bit better in counting stats and all-in metrics, but his team has struggled. George’s and Hayward’s stats have been remarkably similar, but advanced numbers like Win Shares and VORP think the Jazz forward has been twice as valuable. This is mostly because of efficiency (slightly higher TS% and lower TO%).
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The most likely scenario is that Giannis, AD and Jimmy get in, and that Hayward winds up just on the outside, unless voters decide that a quarter of the season is just too much for Durant to have missed. Things could change over the last dozen and a half games, especially if Utah is able to hold onto the West’s fourth seed. But as of right now, it looks like a tall order for Hayward.
For argument’s sake, though, let’s say he made it. Does the DVP provision — specifically designed to help the Jazz keep a player like Hayward — help or hurt the club?
It definitely makes the Jazz’s best offer a stronger one than what anybody else could tender the versatile forward, but they already had an advantage there.
Assuming a cap of $102 million this summer, the Jazz can offer five years starting at 30 percent of the cap, with raises in increments of 7.5 percent of the first-year salary. That comes out to five years, $176 million. The most another suitor could offer because of a shorter term and lower raises is four years, $131M. That’s already a $45M advantage.
The DVP provision would make Hayward eligible for five years, $205M. The likelihood of Hayward turning down a $75M difference to go join another team is probably pretty low, but is it much lower than the likelihood of him turning down the $45M difference he’s already eligible for?
And that higher max figure could also affect the Jazz’s ability to keep the rest of its rotation intact. Look at the year-to-year differences of the three contract options.
|Jazz DVP max||Jazz non-DVP max||Other team max|
A $35.7M starting salary would probably be pretty enticing for Hayward relative to other free agent offers, but it also takes the Jazz dangerously close to the luxury tax threshold — or even over it, by the time they decide what to do with free agents like George Hill and Joe Ingles. And in five years when Hayward cold potentially making upwards of $46 million, the club will have limited ability to put talent around the then-31-year-old. So yes, it gives them a financial ace in the hole when it comes to incentivizing Hayward to stay, but that advantage comes with some real downstream impacts.
Of course, losing a player of Hayward’s caliber would be more costly in basketball and macro terms. This is true of Hayward, who’s a franchise face and a key to their prompt rise into the Western Conference power structure. So it still behooves the Jazz to keep him however they can. If they lose Hayward, their rebuild gets set back by several years and they instantly downgrade from fringe elite to another middle-of-the-pack good team. Stuff cost what it costs, and if you want to have superstar talent, you can’t balk at what superstar talent costs.
But it’s still negligible whether this new set of salary mechanisms helps incumbent teams in retention terms more than it hurts them in raw dollars. Why should a team be forced to outbid itself to keep a star player when they’re already able to offer $45 million that other teams can’t.
At least one team has already wrestled with this unintended consequence. Whatever other cultural and behavioral factors spurred the Sacramento Kings to deal DeMarcus Cousins, the money thing was there, too. Cousins won’t be a free agent until 2018, either, so his DVP megamax would have come to more than $217M, an annual value of $43.5M. More teams will face this, too.
As for Hayward, it could all be moot if the All-NBA voting goes the way most expect. But whether it’s Hayward this summer or some other star player later, the question will invariably persist: are the new rules really an advantage?